The hot topics dominating the debate

The main controversies surrounding diversity and inclusion in higher education

diversiteit hangijzer Illustratie: Eveline Schram
Illustrations: Eveline Schram

The debate surrounding diversity and inclusion issues in higher education is by no means a novelty, although it does seem to take on a different name every decade. Whereas a few years ago, the debate centred mainly on performance-oriented issues such as getting more women into senior executive positions and recruiting more international students, the issues these days are more specific and political in nature. This also means that issues tend to be more sensitive and people are more likely to have their feelings hurt.

A study conducted by independent news media in 21 higher education institutions across the Netherlands shows that gender identity and the fight against racism are the topics in relation to which tempers tend to run the highest.

At the University of Amsterdam (UvA), for example, several lecturers received death threats after they called on the Executive Board to deplatform Jordan Peterson, a controversial Canadian psychologist, as a guest speaker. In an open letter (available in Dutch only, Ed.), the lecturers asserted that Peterson’s transphobic and misogynist views did not align with the basic principles and values of the university, such as non-discrimination and equality. Peterson nevertheless spoke in Amsterdam and drew a full house.

In Groningen, comments quickly derailed when the independent news outlet of that university, UKrant, published an article with the headline "Groningen is very white", in which five people from different ethnic backgrounds spoke about their experiences in the city. UKrant got 630 angry comments, including many furious ones containing racist or xenophobic statements, whereupon the editors decided to close the comment section.

How are educational institutions navigating this explosive landscape? Below is a summary of the major controversies.

diversiteit hangijzer Illustratie: Eveline Schram

Controversy #1: Decolonising the curriculum and making teaching materials more inclusive

"Indoctrination". That's how educationist Brian Godor referred to the decolonisation of the curriculum in an op-ed published by Erasmus Magazine, the independent news publication of Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR). Godor argues that the goal of education and research is to learn about the world as it is, whereas efforts to decolonise the curriculum would be ostensibly changing the goal to "creating a new world". In his view, objectivity is being lost.  

Nevertheless, all universities and universities of applied sciences in Rotterdam and Amsterdam are devoting attention to more inclusive teaching materials and decolonising the curriculum. Several diversity officers confirm that the Black Lives Matter movement has helped raise awareness of the issue of institutional racism and how the colonial past impacts our current way of thinking. This awareness has also penetrated educational institutions. Considering that curricula are often based on European or Western perspectives, decolonisation is an attempt at changing that state of affairs and making room for non-Western ideas and perspectives.

At UU, efforts to decolonise the curriculum are underway as well. In October, the university launched an Inclusive Teaching Toolbox, a collection of guidelines, best practices, instructional strategies, and recommended further reading for lecturers looking to create an inclusive curriculum and learning environment. In addition, UU is investigating its own links with the slave trade in the past. In March, the Executive Board asked a committee consisting of Historians James Kennedy, Leen Dorsman and Nancy Jouwe for advice. “This page in our history is underexposed”, stated the board at the time.

Reviewing teaching materials through this critical lens is a sensitive issue. However, when asked to react to the criticism, diversity officers state teachers were never coerced to change do anything, emphasising that the initiative to change teaching materials often comes from the bottom up: that's something lecturers themselves are demanding more and more. Diversity officers see themselves as taking up a supporting role at most, for example by offering a toolkit to help academic staff discover ways to take a critical look at literature.

Some lecturers choose to add "non-Western" perspectives to their syllabus. Gerry Wakker is a diversity officer at the University of Groningen and a lecturer in Classical languages and Literature. She has decided to provide context alongside any teaching materials that may be regarded as Eurocentric. "I discuss how the classics are often seen as the domain of elitist white men and how the extreme right sometimes appropriates this literature. For example, we discussed how classical symbols were used in the recent storming of the Capitol."  

Many diversity officers working at higher education institutions in the Netherlands prefer not to use the term "decolonisation" but rather "making teaching materials more inclusive." In these cases, the focus shifts to combatting all kinds of exclusion. Sometimes, changes can be made to small details, explains Constance Sommerey, Diversity Officer at Maastricht University. "In the Property Law course, we changed the example of 'Tom and Mary buy a house' to 'Tom and Tim buy a house.’"

Controversy #2: Diversity is more than helping white women get a job

For many years, women were the key demographic of diversity policies at educational institutions. However, a shift is currently underway. "Helping white women get a job" is how Hahae Son, a student member of the University Council at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) expressed her dissatisfaction with the 2020 diversity memorandum of her institution, in an op-ed published in Dutch only by the independent news outlet Folia.

It is now common practice not only to look at whether someone is a woman or not but also to take into account other axes of difference, such as ethnic background or socio-economic class and how they impact one another. For example, a white woman with highly educated parents will encounter different obstacles compared to a woman of colour from a working-class family. In academic and activist circles, this is known as intersectional thinking. This study shows that intersectionality now forms the basis of diversity policies at all the educational institutions that were studied.

Machiel Keestra, Chief Diversity Officer at UvA, says that "broadening out helps make it clear that I’m not interested in pushing through a particular agenda in an activist way." One of the concrete effects of this broader perspective is that diversity policies are increasingly focused on having a more diverse workforce. Universities of applied sciences in the biggest cities of the Netherlands (a region known as Randstad) have been struggling with the fact that their teaching staff does not reflect their student population, and that goes beyond just male-female ratios.

Diversity officer Aliya Çelik says that having a teaching body that would match the student population is in line with what many students at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences want. This is an issue other universities of applied sciences in the Randstad metropolitan region are struggling with – even more so than research universities in the same cities, it seems. Students at the universities of applied sciences tend to be more culturally diverse than those enrolled in research universities, according to diversity staff at the universities of applied sciences of Rotterdam and Utrecht. 

But how do you go about creating a more diverse workforce? People in management positions tend to be white and more likely to hire people who look like them, say the diversity staff consulted. This happens because managers have implicit biases about people who are different.

All the educational institutions evaluated in this study are tackling unconscious biases with so-called unconscious bias training sessions. The goal is to make people more aware of their own biases. However, these trainings are often not mandatory. In addition, manuals are now widely available on how to write inclusive job ads. Diversity staff are also arguing in favour of making it mandatory for job ads to expressly state that the organisation aims to foster a diverse workforce.

At UU, the Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Office offers several training sessions for employees, including Diverse Recruitment and Selection for Managers, Inclusive Recruitment and Hiring for Professors, Working in a Diverse Environment, and Inclusive Leadership. The complete list of training sessions is available here (link accessible only to those with a Solis ID, Ed.)

The fact that this has not been widely celebrated is addressed by Jules van Binsbergen in an op-ed in the Dutch newspaper NRC, published in September. Van Binsbergen is a Professor of Financial Economics at the University of Pennsylvania and believes that diversity statements of this type are a way of testing whether applicants are on the "right" side of the political debate. He warned that this will put pressure on academic freedom in the Netherlands, similarly to what he believes is already the case in the United States.

Controversy #3: Going beyond 'he' and 'she'

Almost all administrative systems at the educational institutions evaluated in this study are based on the dichotomy of men/women, which no longer fits with current thinking on sex and gender. The visibility and emancipation of the transgender community are gaining momentum. In addition, there are more and more people identifying as non-binary in the Netherlands (like in Dutch only, Ed.)

There is also resistance to the change in the way we think about and approach gender identity. In a piece published by the Dutch newspaper AD, for example, Pieter de Vries, a theology lecturer at VU University Amsterdam, compared "gender ideology" to Nazi ideology, making his assertions in the wake of an intense debate surrounding his support of the Nashville Statement, a Christian document that rejects homosexuality and gender transitioning.

Marco Strijks, Diversity & Inclusion Liaison Officer at the Saxion University of Applied Sciences, emphasises that the demand for change does not come from the diversity office but rather from students themselves. "I get a lot of complaints about how gender and salutations are set up in IT systems. They don’t accommodate for non-binary and trans people. You run into all sorts of bureaucratic hurdles trying to change that and my job is to assist in that regard."

Strijks is not the only one receiving queries about changing gender registration. The modification of registration systems is an active issue at almost all educational institutions. Recent efforts at EUR in this regard were successful and students can now change their pronouns in their education software, Canvas.

At the moment, UU’s EDI Office is working on a report on gender registration and the use of pronouns across the university. They are gathering input from several parties and are set to discuss the findings with EDI’s Steering Committee in January 2023. Asked to comment on the initiative, EDI’s Policy Advisor Jennifer Gravendaal said it would be “inappropriate” to share any details before then. But in Utrecht, too, the university is reacting to requests from students, who would like to be able to change their e-mail addresses and signatures more easily.

Being misgendered in official communication and their own diplomas is also an issue. Diversity officers often receive complaints about the fact that the wrong, pre-transition names may be used on forms or on exam certificates. For example, at the Saxion University of Applied Sciences, a student called Quin Deen was forced to collect his HBO Propedeuse certificate with his old name on it (article in Dutch only, Ed.) As long as the name a student has chosen themselves cannot be changed at an administrative level, the diversity office will find an interim solution, such as a ceremonial diploma certificate.

Language changes faster than systems do. Some people want to be addressed with pronouns other than the conventional he/him or she/her, such they/them. Educational institutions are trying to institutionalise this change by providing handbooks and manuals on inclusive language, which allows them to enforce rules for drafting job ads, for example. However, face-to-face interaction is something that students and lecturers have to navigate themselves.

The fact that there is a discrepancy between how staff members and students feel about this issue is something that Constance Sommerey at Maastricht University has observed. "For most students, it’s a matter of course or courtesy to announce your pronouns when you meet someone. Many lecturers feel this is one step too far, and either don’t understand why it’s necessary or don’t know how to bring up the issue."

There are lecturers who prefer not to put students on the spot during a lecture. They also want to afford a degree of freedom to students who have not yet fully figured things out and do not want to force anyone to publicly speak out about their gender identity.

A number of educational institutions are therefore reticent. The Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences, for example, did not adopt a proposal put forward by the participation council to actively use gender-neutral pronouns. "Being social pioneers is one step too far for us at this stage" is what the Chair of the Executive Board told the publication Profielen at the time.

diversiteit hangijzer Illustratie: Eveline Schram

Controversy #4: One toilet for all

All universities and universities of applied sciences that were studied now have at least one all-gender or gender-neutral toilet. The toilets are meant for everyone – including for people who do not identify as male or female.

But where are those toilets actually located? In November, UU announced that its all-gender toilets now have bigger stickers on the doors so that they can be spotted more easily. In addition, the university’s web page about its buildings now specifies which ones have all-gender toilets and, if not, where the nearest one is located. The ultimate goal is for each building to have at least one all-gender toilet. “But this is a long road,” says Andrea Simmelink, Communications Officer at Corporate Real Estate & Campus. In practice, accomplishing this mission is harder than it seems.

Exactly how many of these toilets should be installed is another question. Marco Strijks of Saxion University of Applied Sciences explains that it took him five years to get an all-gender toilet installed in every building. He cites an example of a member of staff who baulked at the toilets near his office being renovated. "He thought he’d have to go further afield," says Strijks.

Once the toilets at Saxion had all been installed, people who thought they were unnecessary would scratch the stickers off the doors. There were also people who felt uncomfortable with all-gender toilets for religious reasons, as well as women who were not happy that others could enter "their space". At Saxion, most of the toilets transformed into all-gender ones were women's toilets, which is something that Strijks would have done differently in retrospect. Ultimately, Saxion also adapted the men’s toilets.  

Despite all the commotion, little has changed for people who do not want to make use of gender-neutral toilets, as all the universities and universities of applied sciences still have separate toilets for men and women.

This study involved an analysis of 36 policy documents from 21 educational institutions: 13 universities and 8 universities of applied sciences. These documents relate to strategies, memoranda, action plans and position papers in which the educational institutions set out their plans. As part of this study, we also spoke with diversity officers from thirteen universities and seven universities of applied sciences about their work. Nearly all diversity officers say they must deal with negative reactions often, of whom three even received threats. As a result, some diversity officers were reluctant to participate in this study. 

The independent media that participated in this study are affiliated with the Association of Editors-in-Chief of Higher Education Media. 

The study was conducted at the following institutions: Fontys University of Applied Sciences, University of Groningen, VU University Amsterdam, Utrecht University, University of Twente, Avans University of Applied Sciences, Eindhoven University of Technology, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences, Radboud University Nijmegen, Utrecht University of Applied Sciences, Delft University of Technology, Arnhem Nijmegen University of Applied Sciences, Maastricht University, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, Hanze University of Applied Sciences, Tilburg University, Saxion University of Applied Sciences, University of Amsterdam, Wageningen University, Leiden University.

This study was made possible in part through a contribution from the Dutch Journalism Fund.

What does diversity and inclusion policy look like in practice? This infographic compares all participating institutions.